Friday 13 December 2019

Cloud and multimedia - another hurdle falls.

For those schools considering a move to cloud storage there’s always been one hurdle that's been difficult to overcome - multimedia.

Whether it’s graphics, music, art or material design the nemesis of the serverless school has always been the manipulation of very large files by high end software packages normally running on Apple Mac’s or Windows workstations,

As previous posts have pointed out, using local storage is hardly an ideal solution. The ever increasing demand for storage has an impact on backup and disaster recovery plans and multimedia can prove a challenge to a mobile first, anywhere learning approach. Moving very large files across a network also requires a resilient high speed backbone but so long as you have the budget for fast switches, resilient storage, backup software and box full of data tapes, it’s a proven strategy.

One approach that can work well is to keep both the data and the processing in the cloud. The next generation of SaaS platforms may not match the advanced functionality of locally installed applications but they are ideally suited to the anywhere learning model and have proved very successful when matched with devices such as Chromebooks.

However, if the lesson plan requires branded specialist software which only runs on a high end workstation and generates files that are gigabytes in size, does that rule out cloud storage all together?

Well maybe not.

The technology behind synchronising cloud storage to local drives has come a long way in the last few years and has now reached a point where it can take on the challenge of large multimedia files. This objective was made clear at the recent Microsoft recent Ignite conference where some key updates to OneDrive were announced.

The popular cloud storage service is gaining support for larger file sizes, differential sync and new preview features.

Starting with the most obvious requirement, users can now upload files up to 100GB across a range of formats and are no longer limited to the MS Office standards.

Differential sync is one of the most user-requested capabilities for OneDrive and has been on the roadmap since 2017. This feature only transfers parts of files that have been changed which is clearly a huge advantage when working with large datasets. Currently OneDrive supports differential sync for the all the modern Office file formats but from December 2019 it will support all files stored in Microsoft 365.

Microsoft has written custom handlers for common image formats such as GIFs, JPEG and TIFF, audio/video media files such as MP4 as well as AutoCAD DWG which will substantially reduce the upload times as well as the consumed bandwidth. Now that differential sync can be linked to local caching this makes large files and cloud storage a practical combination for the first time.

One of the biggest advantages of cloud storage is the ability to share files between co-workers and external partners but this can be hindered by processes such as CAD/CAM  and image editors requiring their own viewing software. Fortunately the OneDrive web interface now comes with built-in preview tools which includes AutoCAD and support for 360-degree images. Microsoft will be releasing new viewers at regular intervals to further extend the current range of graphics handlers which includes  GIF, JPEG, JPG. JPE, MEF, MRW, NEF, NRW, ORF, PANO, PEF, PNG, SPM, TIF, TIFF, XBM, and XCF files.

Lastly, OneDrive's preview tools also offers basic editing features including the ability to add comments and annotate PDF files which is a useful plus for education.

Checking back on the blog history it’s been over five years since the first post appeared promoting the use of SaaS in education.

In 2014 a serverless deployment was possible but with certain technical challenges such as  the management of Microsoft desktops, print handling and third party integration with cloud directory services. Over the intervening period each one of these restrictions has been removed.  Now another hurdle falls with workable solution for manipulating large files directly from cloud storage.

It’s still not perfect but neither was placing a mini-datacenter in every school.

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